Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Beginning is Near!

Last Friday I mentioned that this weekend is the start of another church year, and if you are a church organist or pianist that might affect your choice of music. The curious thing about the first week of Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas, is that the scripture readings chosen for that Sunday are usually pretty gloomy. Much gets written by church folks about being out of step with the surrounding culture (often but not always that is viewed positively) and this time of the year illustrates that pretty well. While the culture at large is looking for good vibes and happiness during the entirety of the Christmas Season, which has been underway for quite a while already, the church is under the impression that Christmas won't arrive until, well, Christmas Day, and that the season beforehand is actually a rather bleak time. Time for reflection, penitence, giving up things, self-examination--much like Lent, actually, which gets more press. People not from a liturgical church tradition must find this rather odd.

The readings for this first week are particularly dire; signs of the end of days, stars falling from the sky, earthquakes, wars, dogs and cats living with each other (or was that from Ghostbusters?)--so, given the liturgical emphasis of the day, I chose a piece for the organ that is less warm and fuzzy and more apocalyptic.

I bring this up both so you can listen to this hair-raising but wonderful piece, and also so we can have a debate about it in two days. This is the Wednesday portion of the blog, wherein we don't generally discuss matters of religious or church music, but I hope you'll forgive the setup, because on Friday I'm going to be talking a lot about interpretation, which is really more of a Wednesday thing.

I'm going to be thinking about how we play Bach, and what does, or doesn't, constitute a legitimate interpretation, how we think we know, and so forth. I'm also going to play for you three different versions of the same piece I recorded this week and see what you think about them. That's my preamble. Now go digest your turkey and I'll see you in 48 hours!

Monday, November 24, 2014

We Gather Together

I'm continuing my miniature crusade to make Thanksgiving a more significant holiday and rescue it from the shadow of its louder and more commercial cousin, the 250 days of the X-mas season.

Maybe that's the problem with my campaign: just like the holiday, it's too modest. And I don't have any corporate sponsors.

You might be wondering how I could get corporations to sponsor diatribes against commercialism and against materialistic excess. Well, here's something I've learned by observing the Christmas season come and go these many years. Corporations have no problem at all putting their names to television shows with the message that there is more to life than buying stuff. They aren't worried that we'll take that too seriously. As long as you've trampled your quota of people at BestBuy getting what you think is a great deal on a plasma television and THEN come home in a foul mood from circling the mall trying to find a parking spot for four hours to put your feet up and watch a feel good special about how it's really all about that special feeling you get from the season or whatever muck it's about, that's all good. Capitalism first, rhetoric later. It's actually a pretty cozy relationship.

Sooooooo, anyway......

At our church's Thanksgiving dinner last week, I played this little number, which my buddy Marteau wrote for me. It is based on a Thanksgiving hymn but the poor hymn has a little trouble being heard over the noise of some of the OTHER tunes that keep intruding. Some of you might want to play along and write down the "extraneous" tunes as you hear them. If you'd like, you can send me an email ( I haven't decided yet what the winner will receive beyond my astonishment at their superior aural skills, but I'll let you know.

Meanwhile, here is the music, prefaced by what I said at the Thanksgiving dinner. I'm also adding a transcript of my remarks, which are almost verbatim, except I think I skipped a couple of lines:

commentary  (the music is below the transcript)

Transcript of remarks:

[The piece I’m going to play for you now was inspired by an historic discovery.]Archeologists have recently unearthed evidence that suggests that the minor holiday we call Thanksgiving was once a stand-alone holiday, rather than a day that merely reminds us that we are already three-quarters of the way through the Christmas season. In fact—and I found this really hard to believe—Christmas was originally just a day long. The first attempts to expand the holiday into the mega-festival that we know and loathe occurred during the Middle Ages, when the science of assault-by-holiday was still in its infancy. In fact, the Medievals showed their incompetence by expanding the holiday in the completely wrong direction. Starting from December 25th, they decided to make it last until Jan, 5, with Epiphany to follow on January 6th. This rather quaint custom has been preserved in a song, which like so many Christmas songs, we sing without having any earthly idea why. Show of hands—how many of you have actually ever gone dashing through the snow in a one horse open sleigh? I didn’t think so.

The song I’m referring to is called “The 12 Days of Christmas” and you’ve probably suffered through it a few times yourself. You know, the one with the fifers milking and the drummers swimming and the partridges throwing gold rings at each other—it’s chaos, I tell you.

Well, we sophisticated modern types have our own twelve days of Christmas. Before the hostile takeover, these were separate holidays, but now they are part of the Christmas season, as evidenced by the fact that on any of these days you will find Christmas items available for purchase to give to your true love. Beginning in the middle of August, the twelve days of modern Christmas are:

The first day of school
Labor Day
Grandparent’s Day
The Autumn Equinox
Columbus Day
Turn your clock back day
Veteran’s Day
Beethoven’s Birthday
Christmas Eve and of course

Christmas day until 10 am when your tree is on the curb with or without your screaming children, the house is a mess, and you collapse in a chair exhausted and vow never to do this again, confident that you have until the middle of next August before the process starts over.

Now the reason I bring all this up is that I’m going to play a piece based on the Thanksgiving hymn, “We Gather Together.” Ordinarily the tune would get center stage surrounded by some adoring chords and some admiring filigree, but this particular Thanksgiving hymn finds itself struggling to hold forth, under what appears to be a sustained assault by some tunes that you’ll probably recognize.

Kristen [my spouse] suggests that when you hear one of these rogue tunes you might want to write it down and see how many you come up with. Maybe there are extra mash potatoes for the winner—I don’t know. Anyway, here we go....

Friday, November 21, 2014

A Time for New Beginnings

Next weekend--I'll tell you now you so won't miss it--is the beginning of another church year. Happy New Year!

I almost titled this blog "New Year, again?!?" because if you're scoring at home, this is at least the third installment of our annual reset in the last twelve months. Going back to January 1, we have the "official" or civil, new year, in which the number on our calendar changes and 2014 becomes 2015 and so on. This is the New Year which gets the most press, and the most resolutions for reform and improvement of our lives as we head into the new year. Which is odd, because, aside from that change on the calendar, nothing really new happens. There isn't any natural boundary. We are still in the middle of winter--not quite the exact middle, either. Meteorologically winter begins about ten days earlier, with the solstice, though the manifestations of said season have at this point already been with us for as long as there has been snow; generally about a month or so. So there we are, in the deadest part of a cold, dark season (if you live in the Northern hemisphere, anyhow), and the groundhog won't even poke his head out and prophecy comfort for another month. And yet, we feel something new has happened. Out with the old. Let's start again.

The new year with the most effect on our behavior is the one associated with the school year. You don't have to be a child in school, or an adult in school, or a teacher, or a parent, to have the rhythms of the academic year hold sway over your life. Every August there is a great gearing up. Activities, scholastic and otherwise, begin. Both choral organizations I serve begin their rehearsals at this time. Our church choir also begins to sing. People stop going on vacation and get down to business. This great spasm of activity proceeds, with the occasional break until summer, when, as if it were a week writ large, there is a Sabbath for a couple of months. July is a particularly dead time at our church. Everyone is out of town, getting rest, preparing for another spasm of intensity to start in August. We don't have to attach any new year rhetoric to this one. It is new enough on its own.

At the other end of the spectrum are cycles like the fiscal year. Nobody much concerns themselves with those unless you happen to be the treasurer of an organization or work for public radio. Then the fiscal year matters a great deal. It begins with July. If you are a Methodist pastor that is also the beginning of another year, which might bring with it a change of venue. It is another mid-season beginning which exists in our minds, in the realm of numbers. Nature absents herself from those.

Many ancient cultures liked to begin the new year with the beginning of the growing cycle in the spring. Or with the harvest in the fall. If you live in the United States but have you roots in another culture, you may be celebrating their new year as well (ie., Chinese new year), on whatever date it occurs, based on whatever reckoning those in charge thought appropriate.

And if you still haven't had enough newness, along comes the church calendar, which begins anew on the First Sunday in Advent, generally the first Sunday in December, but this year on November 30. It falls four Sundays before Christmas, whenever that happens to be each year.

This yearly reset goes largely unnoticed, I think, unless you happen to work in a church, and it needs to be an uncommonly liturgically aware church at that, at least if you happen to be Protestant, when it is far from a given that you will follow, along with our Catholic cousins, the liturgical year as it was established so long ago.

Still, it is a beginning, even if it begins in sackcloth and ashes, rather than in the promise of spring, the smell of new textbooks, or the steely resolve to hit the gym every day. Our psychology seems to need the promise of the new pretty often; it is never long before we think we've screwed up the old and long to get another chance. Give us a blank slate and before long it is covered with illegible scrawl descending into incoherence and suspect meaning; give us another chance! We'll do better.

So if you are feeling like you need a new beginning, a chance to start over, to renew, refresh, jettison the burdens of the past, don't pass up November 30.

For my money, a new cycle begins with the promise of every moment. If you want to embark on a plan for Bible reading or exercise in the middle of February, go for it. And if you miss a few days, get back on the horse and keep going. Don't wait until next year because you broke the streak! But if you need some sort of officialdom to confirm you in your sense of purpose, then here it is: The start of a new church year. The cycle begins again, like freshly fallen snow. Oh, it'll get tracks in it, eventually. The paper boy won't think to use the side door and will wade through three feet of snow in your front yard and create a royal mess. But, at least for a moment, everything is new again. Always.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Getting Organized

Now that I have over 200 blog entries, it seemed prudent to get around to organizing them. That way, you won't have to fish around for what you might find interesting, and I won't forget what I've already written about, and what music I've already featured. This could come in particularly handy for the Wednesday portion of the blog, wherein I write about diverse topics like being an accompanist, learning about pipe organ registration, being a composer, effective ways to practice, and so forth.

Of course, that would really be handy, which is why I haven't managed to do it yet. Instead of a topical index for those really useful seriesi on various concerns, I have so far only managed three chronological indexes for each of the three main concerns of this blog: Listen up! on Mondays, wherein I play mainly piano music for you to listen to and read about, Wednesday, addressing topics of interesting to fellow musicians intent on improving their craft, and Fridays, when the subject is being a church organist/pianist, featuring music and discussions around the music and the vocation.

And, just to really sell this thing, I should also mention that these indexes are also already out of date. I did them over the summer and plan to update them at the end of each semester when I have a little time. So at the moment, they only run through summer 2014.

You've got to start somewhere, though, haven't you?

The three index pages will appear this week as tabs at the top of the blog. Enjoy.

Monday, November 17, 2014


Poor Thanksgiving. Being an American national holiday, it isn't even celebrated in most of the world, and in the one country--my own--where it has found a home, it gets squeezed between Halloween and Christmas, both of which have become more commercially useful and involve candy and goodies rather than boring old nutrient-rich food. And while some churches actually hold special services for this holiday, every pastor I've worked with in recent memory would just like it to go away. It is, after all, not part of the church calendar. And it is also a violation of the separation of church and state--though in this case, in favor of the church.

Thanksgiving seems like an important concept, too. For one thing, people don't spend much time on gratitude without being heavily encouraged. For another, the thanks being given is supposed to be tied to the yearly harvest, which is sort of important for a species that likes to be able to eat.

Since the day itself has just become another excuse to trample each other at the mall (Christmas shopping, you know), it seems like maybe the only recourse is to extend the Thanksgiving season a bit, start early, like all the other aggressive holidays. So this post's a week early; Thanksgiving itself isn't until a week from Thursday.

And who do we have for a spokesman? Mr. Edvard Grieg, with a simple piece from his set of "Lyric Pieces"--entitled simply "Thanks,"

Oh dear, I'm afraid that won't do. I was looking for something more attention grabbing. How on earth is anybody going to notice a holiday without flashing lights and lots of loud, zany acrobatics? How indeed. Well, Thanksgiving comes anyway. Blink and you'll miss it.

By the way, I'm thankful for my audio software, which allowed me to edit out some very long pauses between sections while I waited for the sirens and the very loud truck and bus to go away. You are too.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Grieg: Thanks, from Lyric Pieces, book seven, number two

Friday, November 14, 2014

Finale (wrapping it up)

George Lucas has said that movies aren't ever finished, they just escape. So it seems with all large projects. In the case of this particular blog series, which has run to 24 installments and run parts of seven months, it seems time to end. The blog itself will continue, and so will thoughts about the organ and organ playing, but I'm getting tired of updating the table of contents every week!

Let's review where we've been with our "Faith UMC organ project" series:

In May I explained what was going to happen to our organ console over the summer, why we needed to fix it, and asked for donations. Then you got to see the organ console being removed, got to visit it in the "hospital," and rejoice in its return. Finally I gave a re-dedicatory organ recital with a little help from my friends.

Along the way, we delved into the history of this amazing instrument, from its beginnings in the days of the Roman Empire, to the thunderous, completely unsubtle Medieval instrument, and stopped just short of getting around to what makes the modern instrument so interesting. I'll fill in that gap in a moment.

We also explored the workings of the instrument itself--how different sounds are the results of different types of pipes, and how the organist can call forth all of them singly or in combination, how he or she can add octaves above and below, move sounds from one division to another, suddenly change dozens of settings with a flick of the foot or the finger.

What I didn't get around to is the difference between a mechanical action and what happened to the organ as a result of electrification. Many organs, including ours, don't have levers and springs to carry the impulse of the player on the keys to open the airflow to the pipes; instead, this is done via electrical impulses. If an organ console is not close to the pipes, or is at a funny angle so that the organist is not facing the pipes, you are probably not dealing with a mechanical action.

This new approach allowed the console to be located far away from the pipes; it also allowed organs to get larger and larger. Adding stops used to make it harder to depress the keys; now none of that mattered.

In the middle of the last century, however, organists and organ builders began to get interested in mechanical action organs again, just as the musical world became more diligent about adopting historically informed performance practices. Many of the organs in our town, particularly those at the University of Illinois, are mechanical, and the students swear by them. I guess that makes us sort of infidelish. Not as bad as if we had an electronic organ, of course!

I admire our big-little organ, however. It is not enormous, but it has a little of everything, stop-wise, and enough features that you can play a variety of literature on it and it will sound not too bad. A mechanical action organ is often designed for playing Bach and while it sounds great in that corner of the literature, it does not do so well for the grand compositions of the 19th century French organists. Our organ, by contrast, while being a bit small for such an undertaking, still handles itself pretty well.

Which is perhaps a small miracle, or the result of foresight on the part of the builders (I was told a University professor was involved in the early plans for our organ). It is particularly suited to music for the Baroque, but it can do other things. It is large enough (too large, some of my congregations would probably say) for the building, and it has a variety of sounds, none of which are bad; some of which sound quite nice by themselves. And they blend well. Our organ, made possible by a very generous donation 30 years ago, cost 150,000 dollars to install, and today would cost nearly a million dollars. So in that context, the cost of the project was not so large after all. And it shows off one more facet of our organ; and indeed, organs in general.

It can adapt. It can adjust to new technology. We added a new stop (sort of) and a digital interface with a lot of interesting features. And the organ, far from being diminished, plays on into its fourth decade. I am proud to say that before I leave this church I had a hand in making sure of that. Longstanding problem with the relay system solved, organ improved, new features added, and away we go, 55 years after the church began, three sanctuaries later.

Thanks, everybody.

I still mean to post some of the music from the recital. Watch this space the week of Thanksgiving when I may finally have the time to do it!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Man and machine

As I mentioned at a recent organ concert, our updated church organ has a digital playback system. This means that, if you hit the "record button" before you start to play, every note, stop change, volume pedal control, and so on, gets recorded as MIDI data, so that when you press the PLAY button it will replicate your performance using the pipes and shutters of the organ. In other words, the organ will play itself.

We didn't ask for that feature; it came as part of the package. But now that we have it, my fertile brain has been coming up with ideas for what to do with it. There are the usual solutions:

--an organist who came to "guest practice" on it recently mentioned being familiar with such a system, which can be used for feedback. You can record your performance and listen to the results, with an ear toward what could be improved. This is just like recording your practice for critical listening, except that you can do it in the actual space, listening to the actual instrument "live." I have to say, it was a bit disorienting, not to say very cool, to be able to walk around the sanctuary and hear the organ from different angles, not to mention head on instead of from in the corner where the console sits. And it does provide useful feedback.

--the fellow who installed the system mentioned that one church wanted one so the organist could go on vacation once in a while. She had nobody to sub for her, and just wanted to get away, so she left a playlist for the service and had somebody pressing buttons. I'm not planning to record the hymns that way; we have other musicians to fill in, and live singing with a prerecorded track is always dangerous. But I did tell our choir director that for Christmas this year I'm giving her a prelude and offertory that she doesn't have to play when I'm gone the week after Christmas. She'll do the hymns live, but the other pieces will be available at the touch of a button. Any cookies she makes as a result of not having to spend that time practicing have to be shared, of course!

ok, those uses are somewhat boring. Here's where it really gets interesting.

---Since the console is not disabled during playback, you can play on top of any prerecorded material. That means I can play a duet with myself. I told my congregation to look out for a piece in which I am listed twice, as both organists in a piece for organ, 4-hands. I've been too busy so far, but in January, I'm going to do it. Of course, I already played a duet for piano and organ at my concert. There will be more of those also.

---there are certain logistical problems needing a solution. Whenever the choir needs the piano to be close by we put it next to the choir loft. Since the sanctuary's architect thought it would look pretty to put the instruments on one side of the altar area and the choir on the other, the choir is about 30 feet from the organ. So is the piano. When we move it for better ensemble, what it means is that, supposing I play an offertory on the piano, I then have to run to the organ to start the doxology. If I prerecord the introduction to the doxology, I can have somebody just push a button and then just saunter over there at my leisure just in time to take over live when the introduction is over.

--Maybe sometime I'll get in line to take communion with everybody else while I'm "playing."

--because I record the voluntaries and offertories I play each week to post on the web, I often run into problems with the annoying birds nesting just outside the wall of the sanctuary where I typically place the microphones. During the month of June I have to wait until they go to bed to record; however, by then I may be too tired. With the new system, I can do the performance whenever I want, and then return later, set up the microphones, and capture the audio as the organ plays back what I've already performed. This also saves me running up the aisle every time I do a take, since the microphones are in the back of the church and the console is in the front.

--another advantage to performing a piece and waiting until later to do the audio capture is that you can record a piece at the console while it is still under your fingers, and, if the organ is badly out of tune, say,  because it's November, and the organ gets tuned in December when you are really too busy to record much of anything, you can save it for days, weeks, or months, until the organ is tuned and even if you are too tired to do anything at that point because it's the middle of December but hit the play button you can make nice, in tune recordings anyway. Now that's progress!

--I can also do several takes and decide which one I want to use before I even set up the microphones, saving time later on in the process.

It seems like I had a few more fun things I could do with this system but at present I'm drawing a blank, so if I think of them, I'll divulge them in a future installment.

Monday, November 10, 2014

My Dancing Queen

Do you mind if I brag on my wife Kristen a little?

If you've been reading my effusions lately, you might recall that two weekends ago I gave an organ concert at my church. Last weekend I ran my first marathon. This past weekend our community chorus, The Chorale, had its fall concert. This, of course, besides running a 5k, children's choir rehearsal, and the usual run of four weekend worship services; throw in a dress rehearsal, trip to the grocery store, vacuuming...can I stop now? I'm wearing myself out writing about it.

But this weekend's concert was special not just because I got to replace the U. S. Air force band single (or double) handedly; (that's a running joke with me--usually The Chorale goes off to a major choral festival to sing with a huge orchestra and I get "replaced"--well, this time it was the other way around. Hah! Take that, orchestra!)--not only did I get to play the piano for 60 of my favorite people, but my wife choreographed and performed an interpretive dance for one of the pieces, Kurt Bestor's "Prayer of the Children." It was very moving. The Chorale, of course, wasn't allowed to watch the dancer during the concert, and even though it is unaccompanied so I wasn't doing anything at the piano, I nevertheless had to sit still and seem professional at the concert rather than take pictures, so what follows is one of the handful of grainy cellphone pictures I managed to get at a short rehearsal before the concert.

Actually, we've got the performance on video, thanks to a Chorale member, so there may be better images to follow.

There was some drama, of course. Kristen came down badly from a split leap the night before the performance at the dress rehearsal and there was some question whether she could dance, something the rest of The Chorale never found out about--unless they read her blog! Here are Kristen's own thoughts on the whole episode.

From DH to DW--you've given us all a wonderful gift.

Sunday, November 9, 2014


I'm taking the weekend off.

Don't be alarmed, members of the Chorale, or staff members at church. I'll still be there, doing everything I'm supposed to do. This is one of those "Michael only" vacations--rest that only exists in my mind.

After a September that featured the newly refurbished organ which we welcomed with might and main during several church services, and in which I learned new and challenging music weekly with little lead time (since there was no instrument to practice on during the summer), followed by an October in which I prepared an organ concert in three weeks, an October whose last two weekends featured said concert, followed a week later by my first Marathon--

I need a little time off.

And as luck would have it, it's a light weekend. All I have are the usual four worship services and two choir rehearsals. Also a dress rehearsal and concert. And at the concert I'm not playing any solo literature. I'm filling in for the U.S. Airforce Band doublehandedly at the piano, and the only real challenge there is to fill in the parts that are marked in the choral parts only as long rests with the actual music the orchestra plays, which I accomplished by listening to a DVD from this summer's choral festival in Washington, D.C.

Maybe the definition of "vacation' needs to be explained a little.

I'm a bit tired, there's no getting around that. Mostly from the pressure of learning and playing all that new music over the last several weeks and also the physical training and running of a very long race. And the schedule itself is the schedule--particularly the weekends. It isn't going to let up for a couple of weeks, and when it does it is still the usual four worship services and two choir rehearsals. That's the bare minimum around here. It's enough to require extra sleep, when I can get it. But it doesn't necessarily feature the same kind of responsibility. Most of it is familiar, and fairly easy. And it doesn't come with the stress of a performance, or of having everything on your shoulders.

And that's the margin. Each week I have music to play, places to be, downbeats to make, and thousands of musical decisions to make within a split second. But each week I also submit to the extra challenge of trying to play difficult music on short notice as well as I can. It's that extra work that makes the difference, keeps me from boredom, makes me sharper and better as a musician, gives my congregation and audience the best I can give them rather than just some musical stuff I've got lying around. If, one week, I decided to get by on the bare minimum, it feels like a vacation. 

This week, for the first time in months, I looked at Sunday's deadline to prepare music for church and yawned. I decided not to. So I'm going to improvise the service music. This is a skill I've cultivated for years. A while ago, I read a blog extolling the virtues of improvisation which held out to organists the prospect of really impressing their congregation. I tend to look at it more as a survival skill (besides, I don't tell anybody what I'm doing, usually). It saves practice time, and if you only use it sparingly on Sundays, it feels like you suddenly didn't have to work half as hard during the week as you do normally, and you really get a break.

So that's my secret. Work harder than you have to on a regular basis. Besides honing your skills, which makes things betters for everyone around you, you will find you have more control over when to take a rest. And nobody will know when you are on vacation!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Even more cool buttons

If you weren't at my organ concert on the 26th, you missed a startling revelation. Taking a page from Bilbo Baggins at his birthday party, I astonished the gathering with one of the organ's new features.

By the way, if you haven't read or seen The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo has a magic ring which renders him invisible. He gives a speech in front of the assembled company in which he tells them he is going away for good, and just as he says "farewell" he pops on the ring and vanishes from their sight. Actually, the trick doesn't go over that well. Most of his relatives find this behavior annoying.

At the concert, however, my startling revelation was received much more cordially. On the DVD (still in processing) you can hear various startled murmurs, some applause, laughter, etc., and this demonstration goes on for about 30 seconds. They were clearly impressed.

What was the cause of all of this?

As part of our console repair, we got a new Peterson-4000 digital system, which does several things we hadn't actually asked for, and all of them are additions to the organ as it existed last spring. One of them is a playback system. What that means is you can hit a record button, play a piece of music, and it will play it back for you when you later hit the play button. During recording, all the data from the console gets stored digitally: every note, every change of registration, the swell pedals, and so on. It's a handy little system, with many uses which I'll save for discussion until next week.

Since our organ does not have a mechanical action, all of the keys and the stop pistons and so on are connected by wires to the pipe room. When you strike a note, an electric impulse travels to the pipe room and opens the pallet(s) on that particular pipe or group of pipes. And since everything is done via electric impulse, it doesn't really matter to the pipes whether the signals commanding their behavior are coming directly from the console or from that black box in the pipe room. The black box's job is to store the data from the recording and then, when activated, become the originator of all of those commands you have 'programmed' when you played the piece in the first place. A clever idea. And it works very well. Note that the keys themselves do not go down when you hit play under those conditions, but the organ (meaning the pipe room) does play back the piece just as you played it when you made the recording.

The first piece on the concert served as an introduction to the organ; a set of variations by Mozart on a children's tune, originally written for piano, and transcribed by yours truly for the organ, which allowed me to show off any number of stop combinations, some rather comic, including the pedal tuba. For the last variation, however, I did a bit of "finger-syncing."

When our narrator told me to "take it away!" I secretly hit the play button on the console, and then proceeded to "play." This took a bit of figuring out, since the console, as I discovered, is still in operation during playback; in other words, any notes you strike will also be heard along with the recorded ones. Since my intention was to back away in the middle of the piece and surprise the audience with the fact that I wasn't really playing, I had to look like I was playing for a while, even though that wasn't true. So I recorded the piece using the organ's lower manual, and kept the upper one empty. A perceptive person who knew the organ well and had good eyesight might have noticed that as I started to play something was wrong, that something being that there were no stops set on the upper keyboard and thus, nothing I played on that keyboard would make any noise beyond key clicking. Meanwhile, the pre-recorded music proceeded apace and I could back away any time I wanted to admit the ruse and let the organ keep doing its thing.

In order to make it look convincing, I had started the recording exactly one measure after I hit the record button. When you hit the playback button, you hear a little pfft as the stops used for the recording all pop out together. That served as the downbeat of the preparatory measure. When I heard that, I started to count off, as follows:

pfft--two---three--- play!

With the result that I was exactly in sync with the recording. It wasn't until I backed away from the console a page later that the trick was discovered. And the audience loved it. I walked leisurely down to a table I had set up, poured myself a glass of water, and proceeded to drink it while the organ continued to play. This is in homage to the old ventriloquist trick of drinking a glass of water while still making the dummy talk (how does he do it?). I conducted the last few measures and led the applause. Then I tried to get the console to take a bow, but it was a bit shy.

People have been talking about it now for a week-and-a-half. It was a good joke. And I don't mind having some fun now and then. And if you thought, that sounds like it was fun, but now what?, keep reading this blog. You'll find out what.

Later in the same concert, I used the same feature to play a piano/organ duet with myself.

But as you'll see next week, I'm just getting started.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Technical difficulties

Sometimes life gets in the way of your plans. For example, I wanted to spend a couple of blogs this week wrapping up my series on the organ project and offering some recorded material of music from the organ concert a week ago.

Instead, my browsers decided not to let me on the internet, and through a vortex of combined circumstances (ok, I read Dostoyevsky) I was unable to so much as post an entry, let alone coordinate the forces necessary to make all of that happen. Plus I was out of town running a marathon and we had no internet at the hotel (it wasn't worth the extra money, we decided). So for now, off we go on another tangent.

It's a useful tangent, though. I have found that often, when I have a series of things that need to get done, and the very thing I'd like to be doing at the moment isn't working out, I need to go with plan B. No fretting, no wasting time cursing my fate. Just do something else that needs to be done and get back to the first one when the opportunity allows. Because opportunity can be pretty wishy-washy sometimes.

This is a skill I first learned in the practice room. The conventional wisdom is that if you want to become good at something you have to enjoy a challenge. And you have to meet it head on. If you avoid hard work you'll never get anywhere.

True, that. But one day, while working on a ten page movement of a Beethoven sonata, I discovered myself banging my head against page two. It was difficult, I was tired, and demoralized.

So I skipped it. I side-stepped the problem. Did I quit practicing? No. I went on to page three, leaving the second for later.

It turned out that the third page was fairly easy. I went on to page four. Also not so bad. It not only didn't make my head hurt, it gave me the security of knowing I could now play three pages reasonably well in just one sitting. Then I went on to page five, page six, seven, eight, nine, ten.

It turned out that the second page was the hardest part of the entire piece. Right near the beginning, when I was thinking "oh boy, if it's that hard already, how am I gonna to get through the rest of it?" I was actually encountering the biggest obstacle to learning the whole thing. It was right up near the front. And if I'd forced myself to keep working on page two until I had it under those circumstances I probably would have run out of gas and finally had to give it up altogether. Besides, I would have assumed the rest of the piece was like that, and it wasn't. Because sometimes the hardest part of the piece is near the beginning.

Turns out that happens pretty often. I began noticing that phenomenon in other pieces I practiced. I started to realize that there are times when taking on an enormous challenge is the right thing to do, and other times when the best thing is to save it for later. Because in this case I finished the day knowing 9 of the ten pages, and I could spend the entire next day working on page 2 if it needed it, knowing that if it took all day I needn't worry about it because I knew how to play everything else. The pressure was off. And I could start fresh knowing the precise nature and boundaries of the challenge, the size of my goal for that day.

It also gives me a chance, when on a deadline--these days I never learn anything without having a deadline before a public airing--to triage the piece, and to know as soon as I can about how much effort will be required for success, so I can map out how to attack all the material. Getting an overview can be a great way to reduce stress when working on a deadline.

It really doesn't matter what order you learn the material in. It all has to be learned. And it doesn't really matter whether I do the dishes or practice that fugue or write this blog post. If I'm efficient about it, it will all get done. In whatever order I, or my vortex of combined circumstances, allow.

p.s. My cat, Erasmus, also has a strategy for taking on challenges. Whenever a bug, or a sock, or a toy mouse, runs around a chair, instead of chasing it, he goes around the chair in the other direction to meet the very surprised sock head on. He's a genius.

He's also figured out how to deal with disappointment. As I was finishing this blog I headed out the door. Not being able to sit on my lap anymore, he decided that he could at least be near something that smells like me, so he went and sat by my slippers.

It's better than nothing.